Scene for ST: TOS episode “The Empath.”
January 17, 2013


Empathy and Altruism

I think one of my least favorite episodes of the original Star Trek is the episode “The Empath.” A detailed plot summary can be found on the episode's Wikepedia page, but briefly put the idea is that a character's species will be destroyed unless she is willing to sacrifice herself in order to save another being. Now note that the Vians, the people testing Gem, the empathic alien, have decided that they are qualified to test her, and to sit in judgement on her. No one asks them who gave them that right, or from what set of principles they derive that right. They simply have that right because they, by their own assertion and valuation, are superior beings that can do as they bloody well please to other beings that don't come up to their idea of snuff. They can apparently crush all opposition, so these almighty beings have decided that unless Gem acts against her own self interest, they will destroy her and her people.

Somehow the idea of empathy has become embedded in our culture. Bill felt our pain, probably even as Monica was busy doing the Lewinsky on his Clinton. Business leaders are psychopathic because they lack empathy. We're a whole nation that has someone whispering in our ears, “You must feel. It's beautiful to feel,” but when Gregory Corso wrote those words you knew that he had an ulterior motive.* Now the motive is not so obvious. The sine qua non of a person's worth is feeling, does he feel bad, does he feel regret, has he "turned his life around," or had a "come to Jesus moment?" Then all his forgiven, and he can return to public life.

*For those unfamiliar with the works of Gregory Corso, it comes in the poem “Marriage” in his collection The Happy Birthday of Death. The ulterior motive is erotic love.

The idea has gained ground that a person's moral worth is somehow to be gauged by that person's emotional repsonse to any situation. We must feel bad whenever someone is killed, or a plane crashes, and yet the reality is that we don't. In some situations we might. I was upset when I heard about the World Trade Center, and about the Pentagon. At the time I had to drive past the Pentagon, and I could smell the fire and smoke coming from the wreckage. On the other hand, when I hear about the latest mass murder of innocents my outrage is directed at the politicians who created those victims by reckless policies such as shutting down mental hospitals, creating gun free, i.e., free fire, zones, and otherwise abusing their constituencies. It's also directed at the perp who choose to kill the people, and I won't waste any sympathy on him. The point here is that it is neither proper nor wise to emote over every incident that happens. We formerly reserved our intense emotions either for those that affected us directly as individuals, things that happened to us or those we loved, or those that happened to us as a nation, or that affected large populations.

We have supplanted a decent emotional reticence with a demand that everyone express emotion at all times. And yet it's not enough to express any emotion. It must be the proper emotion, the politically correct emotion. This is what gets us off the hook so that we are not labeled as cold, unemotional, or psychopathic. In short we must conform our emotions to what someone else defines as proper. Our autonomy, our authenticity, words beloved by our masters, are denied us so that we may fill their little blanks with the appropriate terms.

Empathy emerges as a way to manipulate people into conforming their emotional life to a pre-determined mode. The person is then evaluated not on their actions, and the moral worthiness of their actions, but on the psychological value, as determined by someone else, of their emotions. It is a way of control.

One major problem with empathy is that while it may be comforting in some cases, in others it's not. We don't want our neurosurgeon tearing up while he's poking around in our skull. (Nor do we want him to remark that he should write up our case for a medical journal as one character did in a new medical show. What we want is focus, and a decent respect.) Nor do we want our generals to go all weepy over the casualties they'll inflict on the enemy. What we want in surgeons, generals, business people, if focus and concentration on the job at hand, not weepy, whiny, emotionalism.

Altruism is related to empathy. Alexis de Tocqueville postulated that Americans acted out of self-interest properly understood, but to bring up that old-fashioned idea is to risk ridicule, and to be labeled an out-of-date hard-hearted conservative who is mean to children and kicks puppies.

If we are to take the promoters of altruism at their word, we should always consider the interests of other people before we consider our own. If we do that, if our needs, our wants, our desires, are always deferred so that others may benefit ahead of us, so that others may always receive the fruits of our labors, when do we satisfy our needs, our wants, our desires, when do we receive the fruits of our labors? These things are endlessly deferred so that no one ever achieves satisfaction and all live in the same level of unhappiness and misery.

Altruism is frequently invoked to justify taking your money, and passing it on to someone else who is perceived as needing it. The way it works is that A sees someone B in need, so he sends someone, usually someone who is armed, currently a gun-wielding thug, in the old days a sword-slinger, C to take money through coercion from D. Now if this were done by a private individual it would be recognized as robbery, extortion, and conspiracy, and would result in one or more people being hauled off to the pokey. Because it is done under the auspices of government, it is somehow sanitized. It is still morally different from the Samaritan who upon seeing an injured man tended him, paid for his care, and did not extort, did not coerce anyone to care for the injured man.

Despite the moral difference between coerced benevolence and charity the two are conflated by the preachers of altruism, and those who are opposed to coercion are labeled as "egotistic" or "self-centered." The poet e. e. cummings once remarked that he had yet to meet an ego that was situated on the periphery. Where should the self, in the altruist view of things, be situated? Is it possible that the altruist's motivations are not altogether pure, and that he is just as self-centered as the conservative, or the libertarian?

What happens when the altruist succeeds in his attempts? First, he has imposed his definition, his values, on another person. So he has accrued power of a sort. Second, he has forced that person to perform an action that he, the altruist, approves of, and which the poor dumb sod who is his victim, does not agree with. When an administration says that every health insurance plan must cover contraception and abortion, it indicates that it has chosen these things as goods, as values in themselves, which gives it a form of absolute power. It also is able to bring coercion to bear upon those who object on religious grounds, and to nullify the individual's freedom of conscience. All of this is done on altruistic grounds because they somehow know better than you what you should believe. The government exerts total control over the individual on the grounds of its proclaimed benevolence.

So are the motivations of the Samritan better than those of the altruist? How about the motivations of a Howard Roark or a John Galt, the heroes of Ayn Rand's best know novels? Rand makes negative comments about charity in the context of altruism, but her ethical system does not preclude charity. Rand also does not, in her novels, offer any insight into either the psychology or ethics of policemen, firefighters, and others who are engaged in occupations that involve risking their lives for unknown others. I think it is possible to invoke de Tocqueville's "self-interest, properly understood" here. The Samaritan takes care of the man because the world is a dangerous place, and by acting in this fashion he makes it less dangerous for himself. That may be more directly applicable to policemen, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and others in similar professions. Whatever feelings of power accrue to these people, however, stem not from power over others, but from power over the self, so they are, paradoxically, more benevolent than the feelings of the altruist.

What is noteworthy about both the preachers of empathy and the preachers of altruism is that it is always their concept of empathy, their concept of altruism that the seek to impose in violation of the individual's conscience and autonomy. If you don't play according to their psychic rules, you'll get branded as a psychopath. If you don't exhibit their concept of altruism, and endlessly defer your dreams, your hopes, your ambitions while they exult in their power over you, then you are lacking in charity.

Empathy and altruism, as they are commonly understood, are nothing less than the path to hell. Perhaps it is time to get rid of these concepts as positive values, and to ask rather is an action good or bad, was the person responsible or not responsible for his actions.